Why Bother Debating?

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Two weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion for a group of post-university students from the U.S. and Canada who are contemplating aliyah. The topic was “State and Religion in Israel,” and the panel included an activist from the Reform movement and a Modern Orthodox educator.

I returned home after two and a half hours completely drenched, wondering why I had gone and whether anything positive could possibly come from such a debate.

I doubt most readers can even imagine the chasm between traditionally Orthodox and secular North American Jews. We barely have a common language or any shared assumptions. For us, “Who is a Jew” is determined by very specific halachic criteria, and the question of “What are the obligations of a Jew?” can only be answered by recourse to the Written and Oral Torah.

For them, a Jew is anyone with Jewish blood who “feels Jewish,” and the concept of obligations is foreign. Instead they prefer such vagaries as “raising a Jewish family” or “living Jewishly,” defined by each individual Jew for him or herself. For reasons that I will not detail, I have never felt so intensely the truth of the Chazon Ish’s pithy line, “What they call a great love story is for us an issur kareis [a prohibition deserving of spiritual excision],” as during that panel discussion.

I knew from ample past experience on such panels that I would be on the defensive from the very start. The main topics are almost guaranteed to be army service and the economic dependence of the chareidi community. And indeed, in the moderator’s introduction, she mentioned that the participants had already heard a lot on these topics from previous speakers.

In any debate, the preferred strategy is to be able to answer your opponent according to his own premises — l’taamo. That is very hard to do with respect to the question of army service. From the secular point of view, there clearly exists some form of inequity. And the fact that most of the chareidi community does not eschew receiving state benefits, while not participating in the most onerous form of national service, only sharpens the question.

To explain our position, then, requires an entire introduction to the chareidi worldview of how Hashem relates to the world and the effect of Torah learning on that relationship. It is an introduction for which most of that audience did not possess a frame of reference.

So if the chances of winning the debate or convincing any large number of participants are minimal, why would I put myself through the unpleasantness? The least important reason for participating is the chance to reframe some of the issues to which they have already been exposed, and thereby mitigate the animosity. Just putting a human face on the chareidi community may have some purpose, though for that I would have sent someone younger and better-looking.

More importantly, any such forum provides an opportunity to present ideas that most of these young Jews have never heard. Torah min HaShamayim, the view that the pipelines of Divine blessing to the world are either opened or closed according to our actions and Torah learning, the immutability of Torah and that rabbis are not free to do whatever they want — these were new concepts to most participants. I wanted them to understand that Judaism is not whatever any Jew wants it to be, but based on the Torah, Hashem’s Word.

To make the abstract real for them, I described why someone coming from a background not so different from theirs might leave that world, at the pinnacle of success, to join the chareidi world. What could possibly motivate a young Jew, like them, to make such a leap? Of course, this did not have much to do with our given topic, and my Reform opponent complained, justly: “We are supposed to be discussing ‘state and religion’ and he keeps talking about ‘Hashem and Torah.'”

At any given point in time, most Jews are not prepared to consider changing their lives in a major way. But in any group of forty or fifty, there will always be one or two who are in a state of personal flux, and one hopes to find the right words to hit them between the eyes.

Many of those young Jews — relatively committed by North American standards — have never even been in synagogue on Shavuos, if they have ever heard of the holiday at all. If all I did was to give them some vision of Maamad Har Sinai as the central event in human history, it will have been worth it.

Did I succeed? It’s always hard to know. But when I arrived home, there was a message from one of the participants asking whether he could come for a Shabbos. Hopefully, he’ll bring others.

From an article in Mishpacha, June 18.

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Dr. E
4 years 2 months ago

YM:

You obviously have not seen some of the recent government audits on Yeshivos and Kollelim which yielded some rather disappointing results. The audits did not include bechinos for retention or acumen; they simply took attendance against the rosters that they had been given! While you may be excluding these no-shows in your worldview, it should really be seen as a red flag that the Yeshiva and Kollel endeavor might not be for as many people as you believe to the the case. They are self-selecting out, with no viable track. I would be more inclined to believe the North American folklore than the myth that 95% of the Chareidi population is either Kollel material or are taking the endeavor seriously.

In terms of Torah metaphysics, I am indeed a believer, but I think I will revert to the conceptualizations which have existed throughout Jewish history, prior to 40 years ago. When you say “I believe the the great Gedolim of our nation believe that it is not possible to learn Torah in a serious way except in full-time learning”, that is a line that is not only of recent vintage, but largely rhetorical, without any basis in our traditional sources.

joel rich
4 years 2 months ago

I don’t know how you can say that the Men in Kollel don’t love learning Torah; I don’t think that someone can learn all day without loving it.

It is obvious that many of the commenters here do not believe in Torah metaphysics.

————————————–
I didn’t say they don’t love it, I said they do it as a profession (perhaps I should have said the others do it solely out of love)

Could you please expand on torah metaphysics, I’m not sure of your point

Kol Tuv

dovid2
4 years 2 months ago

“At any given point in time, most Jews are not prepared to consider changing their lives in a major way. But in any group of forty or fifty, there will always be one or two who are in a state of personal flux,….”

Reb Yonathan, I understand your frustration. It seems to you as if you spoke to the wall. But that’s really not the case. While you might be fortunate to see the peros of your efforts immediately with those whose lives are “in a state of personal flux”, your resume, your looks, poise, and eloquence will not get lost to the rest of crowd. They may not internalize your message when they hear it, but on an intellectual level, they won’t dismiss it either. When Hashem, out of rachmanut, will bring their lives into “a state of personal flux”, they will remember that Haredi, Yale Law School graduate whose arguments may start now to make sense to them. I am also one of those with delayed reactions.

YM
4 years 2 months ago

I believe the the great Gedolim of our nation believe that it is not possible to learn Torah in a serious way except in full-time learning. Learning a pocket Kehati with a flashlight is wonderful, but completely not comparable in any way to learning in Kollel. KT, I don’t know how you can say that the Men in Kollel don’t love learning Torah; I don’t think that someone can learn all day without loving it.

It is obvious that many of the commenters here do not believe in Torah metaphysics. Too bad for them and for Klal Yisroel.

dovid2
4 years 2 months ago

“He is learning from his packet Kehati by flashlight on little sleep, while simultaneously guarding the border”

This is “pie in the sky” North American folklore that has no basis in reality. Your tzadekel would be court marshaled, and for good reason. You wouldn’t want someone assigned to guard the border to learn mishnayot while on guard duty. I would rather have him sit and learn full time, or go fishing.